On this day in 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast causing massive damage in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. In low-lying New Orleans, the storm surge breached the federally built levee system, flooding as much as 80 percent of the city and killing at least 700 people.
Nine years later in the St. Roch area of the Crescent City, the long process of recovering from Katrina has created economic and social side effects—some positive, some not.
St. Roch is a historic downtown neighborhood full of brightly painted frame houses.
“In New Orleans you can do that. You can paint a house purple. Why not? With a third of New Orleans tracing their heritage back to Haiti because of the slave trade, there’s a huge Caribbean influence, especially in the downtown neighborhoods,” said Ben McLeish, head of the St. Roch Community Development Corporation. The Christian organization wants to see the neighborhood thrive in the right way.
“When the storm hit, you had high school age, college age, and young adults who came to the city for a week and … now they’re going, I’m back in my middletown nowhere and … I want to go back to New Orleans where there is lots of creativity going on and lots of movement going on,” McLeish said. “They’ve moved back and are beginning to plant roots.”
These newcomers are idealistic and energetic. They want to make a difference. Many of them came to teach in charter schools that have transformed education in the city. Just as they’ve transformed the schools, newcomers are changing neighborhoods. Property values have skyrocketed in Bywater, a neighborhood next to St. Roch. A 1,200-square-foot house needing complete renovation might list for $260,000 and sell in a week.
The same thing is happening in St. Roch. It’s partly fueled by government spending to rebuild. The government spent $1.2 million to renovate St. Roch Park, where FEMA trailers parked after the storm. Millions more built a six-block long paved path on St. Roch Avenue down the center of the median called the neutral ground. The path ends at St. Claude Avenue near the renovated St. Roch public market, which cost $3.7 million to renovate. Across the street, a local developer bought an old furniture store and with his voodoo priestess wife turned it into The New Orleans Healing Center.
The newcomers have helped turn St. Claude Avenue into the hippest avenue in America, according to The New York Times. Hipsters with their tattoos and skinny jeans are everywhere. It’s gentrification, but McLeish wants to see gentrification with justice, a term coined by urban ministry leader Bob Lupton in Atlanta.
“When property value or rent go up so high that the poor can’t live there anymore, what it does is reconcentrate the poor somewhere else. It creates a deeper pocket of poverty.” McLeish said.
One solution is for the St. Roch CDC to buy property for use as low-income housing, a challenge because of rising property values.
“You go and try to find a property, and you can’t find anything under this amount of money like I used to be able to,” McLeish said.
Cultural differences also separate the mostly African-American old-timers and the younger, white newcomers. Will the renovated public market house fancy wine and cheese shops or shops affordable to people in the neighborhood? The city has been unable to decide, and so, for now, the beautiful market is closed.
McLeish describes a neighborhood meeting last spring during which some of the hipsters complained about being harassed by police who weren’t letting them drink beer in the neutral ground: “The look of these 60-year-old African-American men looking back on them [was] ‘Are you joking me? Do you have any idea what we’ve experienced from police harassment in our lives?’”
McLeish says the newcomers need to recognize that St. Roch has a rich history that didn’t begin when they moved in.
Meanwhile, the neighborhood continues to face violence. At the end of July, gangs of kids armed with bats beat up two men near the neutral ground. That kind of random violence shocked everyone. It’s a sobering reminder that St. Roch may be cool, but it still has a lot to overcome.
Listen to Susan Olasky’s report on the St. Roch neighborhood on The World and Everything in It: